Pasco school struggling with homelessness turns to basketball for help

NEW PORT RICHEY — John Sosa showed up at Chasco Middle School on a recent Saturday morning to shoot hoops.

“Playing basketball is what makes me happy,” the 14-year-old Krinn Technical High School freshman said.

But he came to the weekend skills camp for more than lessons on how to improve his game.

“I’m out here to help the needy,” Sosa said. “My mom always told us to help anyone who needs help.”

He and a couple dozen other boys and girls participated in Chasco Middle’s fledgling Hoops for the Hungry — a charitable program designed to support the school’s growing number of homeless students while also providing an opportunity for kids to have organized weekend activities.

Students in sixth through 12th grades could attend the 90-minute sessions for a donation of non-perishable food, hygiene and cleaning products, or paper goods. The collection will go to Chasco students and their families who don’t have permanent stable housing, so they have something to eat over the Thanksgiving and winter holiday breaks.

The initial sessions yielded dozens of cans and boxes, as well as more than $400 in cash and gift cards.

Vanessa Soto [ JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK | Times ]

Social service coordinator Vanessa Soto said the school always has seen its share of students in need. Over the past several years, about 70% to 85% of the student body has been defined as economically disadvantaged.

“Post-COVID, we started noticing a lot more of our families were struggling financially,” Soto said.

It became evident as she called parents to check on the whereabouts of absent students. She found some living in hotels, or moving from house to house, and unable to get their children to classes.

Hard times had become harder for some of the children. The staff wanted to do something to help, and it did not have an active PTA or slate of business partners to organize fund raisers.

So they came up with a plan.

And it made sense to make basketball a focal point, Assistant principal Corey Sommers said, because “every morning before school, the kids are out on the courts playing basketball.”

It’s obviously something they love to do, they said. So why not leverage that interest into something bigger?

Chasco physical education teacher Rob Oppedisano, who has taken Trinity College of Florida to the National Christian College Athletic Association basketball championships, agreed to lead the sessions with his longtime assistant Thomas Clark.

“We were saying, ‘What can we do that could benefit the kids and benefit the community that might be going through a rough time?'” Oppedisano said.

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During the training, he and Clark offered advice on ball handling, shooting technique and passing to a rapt, attentive group of teenagers. They used the time to convey additional messages about the importance of staying focused on school and caring about community, noting that without success in those areas sports becomes unattainable.

From left, Pastors Margaret and Victor Caro, and Ivan Medina, 14, Donate food during a Charity basketball camp at Chasco Middle School on Saturday, Nov.  19, 2022, in Port Richey.
From left, Pastors Margaret and Victor Caro, and Ivan Medina, 14, Donate food during a Charity basketball camp at Chasco Middle School on Saturday, Nov. 19, 2022, in Port Richey. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

Sommers said the connection of passing grades to Athletic participation proves a strong leverage point for middle school students.

“You’ve got to give them the incentive,” he said. “It works.”

Tanya Jones brought her seventh-grade daughter Harmony Broxton to the session. Jones said Harmony has been seeking her niche, and basketball was gaining steam as her choice.

She praised Chasco for his initiative.

“It’s a good camp for the kids, and it’s helping the community,” Jones said. “I really hope they keep it going.”

Kristen Lundy
Kristen Lundy [ JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK | Times ]

Kristen Lundy, the principal’s secretary, said plans are in the works for providing more basketball training opportunities that also bring contributions to the school’s needy students. Homelessness and poverty are worsening in the school’s community, she said, so “we do what we can.”

In addition to the camps, Lundy said, the school is reaching out to more area businesses for support, and has revived its dormant clothes closet. The goal, she said, is to reach as many students and families as possible.

Eighth-grader Ivan Medina, who attended the first two events, said the message wasn’t lost on him.

“I play basketball because I love playing sports,” he said. “But I also want to help people out. I care about everyone in life, and about serving people.”

For information on how to participate, contact Chasco Middle at 727-774-1300. The school also is taking food and monetary donations, which can be mailed or brought to the office at 7702 Ridge Road, Port Richey, Florida 34668.

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